By Barbara Winard
“By the time I’ll get out of school I’ll be 65 years old.”
“Well, you’ll be 65 years old anyways.”
— Post in the Women of Road Scholar Facebook Group
I saw the following post a few weeks ago on Facebook’s Women of Road Scholar site:
“Did you reinvent yourself in some way after 50? Did you make an intentional decision to change gears for a second act?”
Almost immediately, more than 100 women posted their experiences and comments. I have long known that my female cohort is pretty amazing, but after reading the replies to this post, I am even more moved and inspired. These women — in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and even a few in their 80s — have overcome challenges to find new paths that have made their lives more satisfying and more meaningful.
One woman who responded to the post wrote that she joined the Peace Corps and went to Honduras when she was 57, one was near 60 when she opened an immigration law office to help asylum seekers, some emigrated to other countries, some became teachers, some became political activists, and many traveled — with several combining travel and social activism.
Inspiration for Life Changes
What was the trigger for these life changes? Some cited divorce or widowhood, others noted retirement or layoffs, and a number of responders were just unhappy in their work. There were women who decided to take the leap after health challenges left them with the feeling that it was now or never. There were also the empty nesters. Several were inspired by the stories of others finding purpose and adventure in life. And some just felt unfulfilled and decided to pursue their dreams after years of waiting.
Selected Women of Road Scholar Life Reinventors
Lori Cruit, from Salt Lake City, Utah, wrote:
“Yes! At 50 I had just earned my license to become a Registered Nurse and went back to school to earn my Bachelor of Science in Nursing… Well, now I’m 61 and have happily worked in nursing for more than 12 years. I have become a diabetes educator and help newly diagnosed diabetics get on pump and sensor therapy. I am so happy that I listened to my own inner voice and carved out this path. I never would have imagined my 50s would have been my biggest decade of growth.”
Jill Hashiguchi lived in Bellevue, Washington, when she began organizing women’s hiking trips after she hiked Mt. Rainer. She is now working on developing a program of hikes for women in Olympic National Park on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
Shari Tomlinson, who lives in Arizona, wrote that when she turned 50 she chose to become a foster parent, something she had always wanted to do. She did it because she felt that after a career in human services this was “another way I could make a difference in the world.”
After Karen Camp Drone, from Sarasota, Florida, retired at 56, she started a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in her home town to bring the arts to her community. After her husband died, she moved to Florida, and at the age of 80 she’s headed to northern Italy. She wrote, “What a life after 50! So good.”
Laura Zahn posted:
“Second career? Ha! I changed careers at 45, after a divorce and high stress job, and changed again at 61, after selling my business and moving out west to Spokane, Washington, where I knew no one. Changed careers again! That was 4 years ago: love, love, love my life!”
Of course, not everyone can afford to quit or leave work and automatically have reinvention funds. According to women who responded to the question on the site and others, some used severance funds or pensions after retiring, some inherited money, and some just saved all their lives. There were women who responded who found more satisfying work, even if it didn’t pay the same amount as their previous job. A few women found reinvention activities outside of work. One of my friends decided to work half-time so she could paint the other half. My husband and I sold our home and moved to a less expensive area. And a number of women who moved abroad found that living costs were lower than those in the U.S.
Make a Choice, Take a Chance, See the Change
My friend Alma Rodriguez, who lives in Phoenicia, New York, went back to school in her mid-60s and recently received her Master’s Degree in theology from the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, with a full scholarship. She told me it had taken her years to be able to pursue her own academic interests because of family responsibilities. She now plans to move to Puerto Rico to help small farmers create sustainable micro agriculture projects. Alma had long dreamed of melding her social activism with her religious ideals, and after a career in nonprofit management, she went for it.
I asked her what advice she would give other women who long to find their own paths.
She said that she believed people “have to reinvent themselves all the time.” Her suggestions to begin the process include:
1) Doing contemplative work to chart your path
2) Taking chances
3) Becoming a volunteer
4) Finding a mentor
5) Finding a common community
“You Must Change Your Life”
— from the poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke
That’s the last line of one of my favorite poems. What it has always meant to me is that experiencing great beauty is revelatory and may spark us to examine our own lives and, perhaps, to move in another direction.
I was especially interested in reinvention because I have changed my life at least twice. I went back to earn my second Master’s Degree in gerontology at age 55, while I was still working full-time. When I was laid off from my longtime job at 71, I recreated myself as a blogger and travel writer. While I have been a writer all my career, I had never written about my 50 years of travel. After my first blog, it came pouring out, and I have met some lovely fellow travelers in the bargain.
Many women wait until their later years to fulfill their dreams or even to figure out what their dreams are. That makes sense: this is the time when we have a better idea of what is important, and we are more able to dismiss what is not.
So, follow your passion—you may become a singer or a lawyer or a doctor or an artist or an entrepreneur or a writer, and (always for most of us) a traveler. You don’t have to go far, just to venture someplace or do something new. The second half of your life can be spent doing what you were always meant to do if you have the inspiration and courage to take the first step.
About the Author
Barbara Winard has earned degrees in English literature, journalism, and, later in life, gerontology. Although for the past 25 years she was a senior editor and writer of online encyclopedia articles for children. She began her solo travels in college, and after returning from a long trip to Asia, wandered off the street and was hired by the Asia Society in New York City to produce films and print materials for adults and children about Asian culture. She was also a producer and writer for New York City’s public television station, WNET/13. She lives in Historic New Castle, Delaware.